7 Sustainability Ideas for Modular Classrooms in the Education Industry (guest post)

mobile classroomToday, a guest post on sustainable modular classrooms from Kathy Werder, a freelance architect by profession and a researcher by nature.   According to Kathy, most of her research papers focus on promoting integration that leads to sustainable and lean design and construction practices. Kathy is obsessed with the latest rage in the construction industry – modular building solutions. She is also an avid writer, and loves blogging about green buildings and portable construction units. Welcome, Kathy!

According to Wikipedia, a sustainable building refers to “ a structure and using process that is environmentally responsible and resource-efficient throughout a building’s life-cycle from sitting, to design, construction, operation, maintenance, renovation, and demolition.”

So if we accept this definition to be true, in order to make an actual sustainable building we have to consider the entire process of building right from the blueprint stage all the way to demolition, and ensure that at every step of the way there is minimal or no negative impact on the environment, especially in terms of resource efficiency.

School buildings require a lot of energy to function. However, there are a great many things that can be easily done to make a sustainable school building. Of course, you would have to opt for modular buildings for schools since they are known to be constructed in a resource and energy efficient way. [Editor’s note: I’m not sure that sustainability would *require* the use of a modular building, but they do have known, quantifiable built-in sustainable features.]

Whether you get your building from a vendor or directly from a manufacturer, here are a few things you can do to your modular classroom buildings in order to make them more sustainable.

Recyclable Materials

The first and most obvious step is to make sure your modular school building is built out of recyclable materials as far as possible. This would include recycled steel, wood and glass as well as recyclable pipelines, window frames, etc.

Approximately 10-20% more lumber is used to construct mobile buildings than in convention construction (to add structural integrity); therefore, using recycled wood can pay dividends.

Recycled steel is robust, not combustible, and mold-resistant, and it is useful for framing.

Carpet tiles made of 100% recyclable materials can be used by most builders. For instance, Mobile Modular Management Corporation uses glueless, 100% recycled carpet tiles that do not release volatile organic compounds (VOC).

There are cost advantages to using recyclable materials and in many cases, there is an associated lowering of installation labor costs.

Indoor Air Quality

Before installing a central air system, first see if it is possible to maximize on natural ventilation by designing classrooms in the style of atriums or by installing large, strategically placed windows that allow for sufficient cross ventilation.

Should you choose to install a central air system anyway, bear in mind that HVAC systems are the main energy consumers in any type of building, especially in schools. New, energy efficient 2-stage HVAC systems should be used that require less energy to function and consume significantly less electricity. They also use refrigerants that do not harm the ozone layer.

In addition to this, some modular construction companies use radiant heat barrier and increase the R-value of all insulation to reduce HVAC load and maintenance costs.

Geo Exchange Systems

Geo exchange systems make use of the energy (or temperature) stored in the earth to perform a large number of functions. It can heat and cool an entire school building, it can provide refrigeration and it can also be used to heat water.  If there it is possible to install a geo exchange system, it is the next best solution to natural ventilation.


Most schools function during the day and so essentially there should be no need to use much artificial lighting. Modular or portable classrooms can be constructed specifically to maximize natural daylight. Large windows with energy efficient glass will ensure that there is plenty of daylight coming into the room while still being able to retain a comfortable temperature that is not affected by external conditions. Sun tunnels can be used to maximize natural lighting as well.

Solar Power

Solar power is the most incredible gift that we have in terms of an energy resource today. Furthermore, with the advanced technology that we have at our disposal today, there are numerous ways in which we can harness solar energy:

    • Solar powered water heating is perhaps the most common way in which solar energy is used.
    • Solar powered light bulbs are another great invention that should definitely be used
    • Solar plugs are also another incredible invention that a school should definitely take advantage of. Instead of using electricity to power laptops and computers, solar plugs can be used wherever possible.

Room Acoustics

Maximizing good room acoustics is another way to save electricity, especially in auditoriums. Since you have the luxury of having your school built to your exact specifications, it would be fairly easy to ensure that your auditorium has good acoustics, wherein you will very rarely require microphones.

Regular Maintenance

As with any other building, school buildings need regular maintenance, and this is especially true if they are modular. All the various energy efficient systems that have been put in place need to be checked and serviced regularly in order to ensure smooth functioning and optimal efficiency. Neglecting to maintain the systems regularly will render all your initial efforts futile and will in fact begin to prove counterproductive.

Thanks Kathy for your article.  Now it is your turn.  Have you designed for a green or LEED school facility?  Considered modular construction as part of your design?  Share your thoughts below.

Of Bridges, Biofuels, and Buildings (Engineering Excellence Awards)

As I noted earlier this week, the ACEC of North Carolina’s Engineering Excellence Awards gala was held last month. 13 amazing projects were awarded recognition, including projects involving environmental and coastal issues, higher education facilities, and government projects.

Each project was important, unique, or challenging in some manner. In my next post, I will highlight one of the most unusual– the Swine Farm Biogas project by Withers & Ravenel.  In the meantime, here are all of the winners, which I’ve loosely sorted into categories:

Mingo Creek Trail Bridge

Mingo Creek Trail Bridge

Coastal & Environmental projects

The Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, Surf City, NC (Cavanaugh & Associates)

Sea Bright to Manasquan Profile Survey, NJ (McKim & Creed)

American Tobacco Trail Pedestrian Bridge, Durham, NC (Parsons Brinckerhoff)

Mingo Creek Trail, Knightdale, NC (Stewart)

Town of Hillsborough Riverwalk, Hillsborough, NC (Summit Design and Engineering Services)

Swine Farms Biogas Renewable Energy Project, Bladenboro, NC (Withers & Ravenel)


Marsico Hall at UNC

Marsico Hall at UNC

Campus & Higher Education projects

South Halls Renovation, Penn State, University Park, PA (Clark Nexsen)

Science & Technology Building, Fayetteville State University, Fayetteville, NC (McKim & Creed)

Marsico Hall, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC (Mulkey Engineers & Consultants)

Military, Municipal, & Highway projects

Infantry Squad Battle Course, Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, Jacksonville, NC (Catlin Engineers and Scientists)

Carolina Field of Honor War Memorial, Kernersville, NC (Woolpert)

Broad Avenue Bus Terminal, High Point, NC (Mulkey Engineers & Consultants)

NC DOT Land Application of Concrete Byproducts, NC (S&ME)

The diversity of the award-winning projects was very clear, as even a cursory review of the projects demonstrates.  I recommend you follow the links to the specific projects to see some great photos and hear more about the projects in detail.

In the meantime, tell me what project you would have given the “best in show” award to if you were the judge.  Or, was a project left out of the awards that you thought superior to some of these?  Share your thoughts about both these projects, and any others that you think should have made the cut, in the comments section.

Photo credits:  Mingo Creek Bridge by James Willamor; Marsico Hall by Bbfd

Bats, Water, Soil, and Bridges- an Engineer’s dream

Want to know how bats may effect your engineering plans?  Want to hear about cool new bridges?  Read on.

Over the past month, I’ve had the pleasure of attending two events hosted by the North Carolina Chapter of the ACEC (American Council of Engineering Companies).  The first of these was the Joint Transportation Conference, held in conjunction with the NC DOT.  The second was the annual ACEC Engineering Excellence Awards.  At both events, I learned interesting information that engineers should know. Today, I will discuss the Transportation Conference, including some new regulations and unusual design methods.  I will save the highlights from the Excellence Awards for later this week.

Northern Long-eared Bat

Northern Long-Eared Bat

  1.   It’s a cave, it’s a bat, it’s bats, man!     Did you know that your future bridge project may be effected by the Northern Long-Eared Bat?  It’s true.  Right now, the federal government is considering listing the bat on the Endangered Species List, due to the 98-99% mortality rate the bats are experiencing due to “white nose syndrome”. Over 1,700 projects in North Carolina could be impacted, including work on bridges, culverts, abandoned buildings, and guardrails–essentially, any activity involving tree clearing, structure demolition/removal, or structure maintenance. On November 26th, 2014, the US Fish and Wildlife Service extended the comment period to discuss the implications of listing the bat on the endangered species list. If the bat is listed, there is no grandfathering of projects.  All projects will immediately be required to engage in protective activities. Stay tuned, but be aware that your transportation projects could be effected starting sometime next year.


2.  Is that a pirate on your map or is it worse–soil contamination? 

known and possible soil contamination

known and possible soil contamination

At the conference, we also heard from the GeoEnvironmental Section of NC DOT on their geologic symbols for known or potential contamination. Known contamination consists of soil or ground water samples that have been analyzed; or by evidence of such contamination as cracked transformers, battery casings, unusual odors while excavating, or new anecdotal information about past use. Potential contamination, in contrast, is for areas where there is no data, but historical maps or photos which indicate current or assumed past uses of possible contamination, such as gas stations, dry cleaner facilities, auto body facilities, chemical manufacturers, landfills, and manufacturing plants. Both known and potential contamination sites are important for designers, as they consider:

  • large cuts, drainage, utilities, or stream relocations in contaminated areas
  • selecting chemical resistant construction materials
  • additional costs for materials, remediation
  • other unanticipated costs or complications


highway stormwater program     3.  Water, water everywhere!  We also heard what’s new with the Highway Stormwater Program, including the updated Post-Construction Stormwater Program and the companion Stormwater BMP Toolbox manual. To learn more about these programs, check out:

  • The NCDOT Stormwater website, which contains useful links; and
  • The Highway Stormwater youtube chancel of training videos, which is still in development but will include environmental sensitivity maps, nutrient load accounting tools, and stormwater management plans.


Dragon Bridge

Dragon Bridge

4.  Cool, cool bridges  One of the highlights of the conference was hearing about some truly unique bridge designs, including:

  • The Tappan Zee Hudson River Crossing, in New York, featuring twin-tower cable stayed structures and all electronic toll collection
  • Vietnam’s Dragon Bridge, a truly working piece of art; and
  • The Milton-Madison Bridge Slide, (Indiana/Kentucky) the longest bridge slide in North America.  The Milton-Madison Bridge Slide was  a feat of engineering design.  Using “truss sliding” a new 2,427 foot long truss was moved along steel rails and plates and “slid” into place atop the existing, rehabilitated, bridge piers.


What about you?  Did you attend the conference?  If so, what insight did you take away?  Share in the comments, below.


Photo credits:  Bats ; soil marks from NCDOT presentation; Dragon Bridge

Wake County Justice Center- a LEED Silver Project done right!

Justice Center

The atrium

Yesterday evening, I had the privilege of attending the Triangle USGBC’s  “Talk & Walk” at the Wake County Justice Center.  The 576,996 square foot Justice Center was completed 6 months early and over 30 million under budget.  (The final cost, including soft costs, came in at ~$141,000,000).  Now that’s what I call a LEED project done right!

Interestingly, the County did not endeavor for a LEED Silver rating– the plan was to aim for a Certification.  However, as the process unfolded, the Team kept meeting the goals and points for a Silver certification without any appreciable additional costs.

The end result?  An “iconic but energy efficient building,” according to Tim Ashby, current Wake County Facilities Project Manager.  Tim was initially involved in the Project while working at O’Brien Atkins, which served as the architecture firm for the Project under the direction of Architect Andrew Zwiacher.

The Project was a Construction Manager at Risk project, involving a joint venture between Balfour Beatty Construction and Barnhill Contracting Company.   Did the contract type contribute to the success of the Project?  According to Project representatives, it likely was responsible for the 6 month early completion due to the high level of coordination.

Energy efficiency in the Building comes from the low flow plumbing (total water savings of 45%, 15% more than LEED requires), programmable and natural daylighting, and almost 98% construction waste diversion.

Jury Room

The large & relaxing Jury waiting room

Another interesting legal factoid: BIM (Building Information Modeling) was utilized.  Through BIM, a conflict was discovered in the space allocated for the air handling units versus the planned size of those units.  This discovery enabled a change to the AHU units (to make them wider and shorter) prior to manufacturer, saving untold delays in time and increases in cost.  We’ll talk more later about the pros (and cons) of BIM, but suffice it to say it worked very well on this Project.

If you haven’t been by to see the Justice Center yet, please do.  It’s a great design (17 elevators!), and a great change from the old Courthouse across the street.

Have you seen the Justice Center yet?  Thoughts on the design?  Share in the comments below.

Photos (c) Melissa Brumback. .Creative Commons License



RDU Terminal 1: Going Green

Last week, I had the fortune to join the Triangle USGBC for its “Talk & Walk” about the RDU Terminal 1 renovation project and its sustainable features.  For those who haven’t had the chance, I recommend you check out the new terminal specifics the next time you find yourself jet-setting in or out of Raleigh on Southwest airlines.

Terminal 1 has been in operation since 1981, with the last upgrade in 1991.  The 2010 opening of the new Terminal 2 had, until now, cemented Terminal 1’s status as the airport’s ugly duckling- complete with the long, featureless metal addition abandoned to times past.

outside RDU Terminal 1

While the $68 million Terminal 1 renovation cannot compete with the Terminal 2 $580 million budget, it nevertheless is an entirely re-imagined space.  Better traffic flow (yes, you can now find where to go through security!), increased daylighting, a new canopy system, and commercial curb canopy (see photo) all complete the new architectural image.

Clark Nexsen principals Irvin Pearce and Doug Brinkley explained the renovation, which included energy saving escalators- the first escalator system in North Carolina that slows down during non-use.  Other sustainable features include LEED complaint flooring, 86% structural building re-use (slabs on grade, composite decks, and structural roof deck), and 28% reuse of exterior walls.

Other highlights of the construction include:

  • An insulated translucent exterior wall panel (Kalwall) to address both security concerns and reduce electrical lighting loads
  • A requirement that lease tenants comply with LEED requirements on the upfit of tenant space, as part of an Innovative Design LEED credit
  • Use of  a 2″ metal panel with reticulating foam seals as a rain screen to produce a well insulated building

Another nice touch– the art above the baggage claim area.  Entitled “Highwire Travelers”, artist Gordon Huether’s sculpture consists of 7 figures suspended above the terminal floor, some balancing luggage on long poles.  (see photos)pointing travelers

balancing luggageThe project is awaiting LEED certification from the US Green Building Council.


Have you seen the “new” Terminal 1?  What are your thoughts and impressions?




Photos by Melissa Brumback. 

Creative Commons License


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